A Base Load Free Power System
Why is Germany planning to phase out nuclear power? In a nutshell, because they fear it — self-serving behavior based on irrational fear. They’re doing it because a sufficient number of German citizens have been convinced by the fear tactics used by the anti-nuclear lobby that their nuclear power poses a significant safety risk (which it doesn’t).
They will be removing from the European grid their low emission nuclear power exports while simultaneously increasing the use of fossil fuels domestically in addition to using more from the E.U. grid, which is almost entirely nuclear and fossil fueled. They are counting on that power from the E.U. grid to fill in the gaps inherent in their own renewable power. To meet their goal of 100% renewable they would have to isolate themselves from the European grid.
However, it’s unlikely that the German people could have been convinced to try this experiment had they not also been convinced that renewables are capable of taking up the slack.
The last time Roberts tried to disseminate the newest anti-nuclear argument (that nuclear power will preclude the development of renewable energy) I rebutted him in an article called Dirty, Baseload, Centralized, Renewable Energy.
The logic goes something like this; if we build too much nuclear power we will be forced to use more of its safe, economically competitive, low emissions energy and less of the energy produced by building a super grid to string together billions of solar panels and wind turbines.
It [phasing out nuclear] will probably lead to a temporary increase in carbon pollution. The hope is that it will accelerate the transition to renewables.
Phasing out nuclear will unquestionably lead to an immediate and significant increase in German carbon emissions for decades at a minimum. The loss of many tens of billions of dollars worth of sunk cost in low emission power and the income it generated, combined with the simultaneous expense of trying to replace it with renewable energy that is even more expensive, is not going to accelerate a transition to renewables. The increase in energy costs will likely do just the opposite.
Nuclear power’s proponents frequently point out that it [nuclear] is one of the only low-carbon sources that can serve as “baseload” (always on) power. Baseload power is needed, they say, because renewable sources like solar are intermittent (the sun isn’t always shining) and non-dispatchable (the sun can’t be turned on and off at will). You need large, steady, predictable power plants if you’re going to have all those flighty renewables involved.
Actually, that isn’t what nuclear power proponents say. Base load is not needed “because renewable sources like solar are intermittent.” Base load power supplies a “base load” of energy to a grid so you don’t have to add as much energy with less efficient power plants (peakers, load followers, wind, solar). The intermittent nature of solar and wind has to be dealt with using the less efficient, more expensive types of power plants. We could supply all power with peaking and load following power plants today. The only reason we use power plants designed to produce base load power is because they are by far the most economical way to produce energy.
Hawaii’s grid gets a lot of its “base load” from diesel generators, which are normally used for peaking loads in other parts of the country. They also have very high electric rates. Nuclear is used for base load around the world simply because it is the cheapest way to add a steady base of energy to the grid (other than coal) to build on with other power sources.
Believe it or not, Germans have heard this argument before. They just think it’s wrong. They don’t think renewables and baseload are complimentary; they think they’re incompatible. In 2010, Federal Minister of the Environment Norbert Röttgen said:
” It is economically nonsensical to pursue two strategies at the same time, for both a centralized and a decentralized energy supply system, since both strategies would involve enormous investment requirements. I am convinced that the investment in renewable energies is the economically more promising project. But we will have to make up our minds. We can’t go down both paths at the same time.”
Do you see the term “base load’ in that quote by the Minister? Neither do I. What you see are the terms centralized and decentralized and they’re not synonyms of base load. Wind and solar farms are very much centralized. A city full of grid-tied rooftop solar panels would be indistinguishable from a centralized solar farm in the country. Hydro, geothermal–all centralized. In short, the German Federal Minister of the Environment does not know what he is talking about.
Fool me once, fool me twice, fool me three times.
1) Nuclear power is not dangerous
2) Renewbles are incapable of doing the job alone
3) Nuclear is not incompatible with renewables
Roberts finds that “non-energy nerds have a little trouble wrapping their heads around this…” Seems to me that if he knows any more about electrical engineering than the German Federal Minister of the Environment does he would have known better than to unwittingly pass along his gaff about centralized power being incompatible with renewables.
…so let’s walk through it with the help of this report by the German Renewable Energies Agency.
Above is my version of the renewable energy graph presented by Roberts (both simplified for illustrative purposes). Assume that the green represents the wind and solar share of the Committee on Climate Change “maximum likely” contribution to humanity’s global supply from renewables by 2030 (45%).
I’m amazed that anyone would try to promote renewables with a graph like this. Look at all of that red. Renewables will be grossly inadequate. Roberts waves that glaring reality off:
So what can fill that fluctuating gap[the red area]? It will be a combination of demand-side measures (conservation, efficiency, and “peak shaving” through demand response), energy storage, a much smarter grid, and dispatchable power sources.
Here’s the problem. Those techniques mentioned above would be equally effective at converting base load nuclear power into peaking and load following by diverting some of the steady electrical output to storage (pumping water into reservoirs, pressurizing underground caverns with air, making and/or converting hydrogen into methane), that can later be rapidly deployed to meet peak load demands. If it’s as cost effective and scalable as Roberts insinuates, he has inadvertently provided the answer for using base load nuclear power to meet peak loads.
- Conservation and efficiency would reduce the red area but not change its shape. However, as my Nissan Leaf strongly suggests, that red blob is only going to get bigger.
- Peak shaving would slightly alter the shape of the red blob but would not reduce its area (demand for power).
- Energy storage (load leveling) would slightly change the shape of the green blob but would also slightly reduce its area.
These latter could include geothermal or biomass plants, but in the near term they will mostly be natural gas plants. The conclusion is clear: what’s needed to complement renewables— to cover that “residual load” — is not baseload, not big, steady, always-on power plants. The residual load will fluctuate in ways that are only partially predictable. To cover it you need options that are flexible and responsive.
The clear conclusion is that the planet does not have anywhere near enough natural gas, hydro, and geothermal to cover that red area and God help Gaia if humanity attempts to fill it in by combusting what’s left of the biosphere, never mind that a power plant burning biomass is not dispatchable and that natural gas is a fossil fuel.
I share James Hansen’s opinion expressed in his book Storms of My Grandchildren, that it would be extremely foolish to bet our children’s and grandchildren’s futures on that giant green amoeba without a lot of help from nuclear given that you have no solution for the red blob. As the above chart attests, renewables can only scale so far. The bulk of the energy will have to be generated in other ways. The only low carbon option on the table other than fossil fuels is nuclear.
Nuclear power plants are not that. They are the opposite of that. In fact, they “have a technically mandated minimum down time of approx. 15 to 24 hours, and it takes up to 2 days to get them up and running again.” You can’t just flip them on and off as needed.
Today most nuclear is designed to be base load for economic reasons. They have no reason to be otherwise. Load following designs are in use and designs to increase that ability can be produced if a use for them arises, and then, there is Robert’s idea to divert energy to storage for peak use.
Read Electrification Nation–Why Natural Gas Won’t Save Our A**. The DOE report of their first Quadrennial Technology Review promotes the use of smallish, modular, mass produced load following nuclear designs. These could take care of most of the red area but not if the two blobs remain so irregular in shape. They will have to be smoothed out using all of the techniques mentioned above. The remaining peaks and gaps between peaks would have to be tackled by a combination of dispachable forms of renewable (hydro and geothermal), load following nuclear, and we are still going to need a lot of base load as well.
Germany’s vision of a renewable energy future involves rapidly phasing out baseload power. The Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology modeled the renewables projected for 2020 and found that the need for baseload power will fall by half.
Yeah, well, they would say something like that wouldn’t they? It would have been smarter to say, “Let’s make $ billions selling our extra zero emissions nuclear energy to the E.U. grid and use it to pay for building more wind power!”
The stock of newer hard and brown coal power plants — i.e., those brought on line or thoroughly refitted since 1990 — amounts to 15.6 GW. In addition, new hard and brown coal power plants with a total capacity of 11.4 GW are currently under construction. This already surpasses the forecast base load needed in 2020.
So there’s already a bunch of coal in the pipeline, and unlike with nuclear, the German government has no legal means of forcing those plants to shut down.
Riiight …no legal means. A modern, sovereign first-world industrialized nation, capable of shuttering many tens of billions of dollars of profitable, low emission nuclear plants, has it hands tied when it comes to coal.
If the nuclear phaseout is delayed, there will be more baseload than necessary — and thus less renewable energy than possible — on Germany’s grid.
They could sell their excess power for profit to the E.U. grid to fund renewables, reducing the use of coal and natural gas in Europe, and if they end up with more renewables than can be compensated for with peaking power inside Germany (which is inevitable), they could sell their intermittent power to the grid as well and/or import power to shore up their renewables (which they plan to do anyway).
Shutting down nukes may be a second-best solution, but it’s in service of a baseload-free, 100 percent renewable power system — a laudable goal that, in a sane world, far more countries would share.
Irrational fear and ignorance isn’t laudable. The goal of renewables is not to be base load free. It is to reduce carbon emissions. Roberts, along with a lot of other environmentalists has lost sight of this. From Monbiot:
The signatories of both letters to Cameron – against and for nuclear power – want to see more investment in both energy efficiency and renewables. What divides us is the aim of this investment. Those who wrote the first letter want this investment deployed to replace nuclear generation, which is by far the greatest current source of low-carbon electricity. The signatories to the second letter (Mark Lynas, Fred Pearce, Stephen Tindale, Michael Hanlon and myself) want it used to replace fossil fuels.
It is plain that we cannot do both. Reducing carbon emissions to 10% or less of current levels in the rich nations, which is the minimum required to prevent two degrees of warming, is hard enough already. To do so while also abandoning our most reliable and widespread low-carbon technology is even harder. It’s like putting on a pair of handcuffs before stepping into the boxing ring.
To suggest phasing out nuclear power when the world is faced with a climate change crisis is utter madness. It shows that some people have lost sight of which goal is more important.
It is not a question of nuclear or renewables or efficiency. To prevent very dangerous levels of climate change, we will need all three. This was made clear by the Committee on Climate Change, which showed that the maximum likely contribution to our electricity supply from renewables by 2030 is 45%, and the maximum likely contribution from carbon capture and storage is 15%. If nuclear power does not make up most of the remainder, the gap will be filled by fossil fuel.
The environment movement has a choice. It has to decide whether it wants no new fossil fuels or no new nuclear power. It cannot have both. I know which side I’m on, and I know why. Anyone who believes that the safety, financing and delivery of nuclear power are bigger problems than the threats posed by climate change has lost all sense of proportion.
I share Robert Rapier’s opinion that humanity is very unlikely to replace fossil fuel use in the time frame prescribed but that’s not the same as saying we should stop looking for solutions. The environmental movement needs more engineers and fewer ideologues twisting reality to fit their belief system.
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